For about a year now, D’Angelo Russell has been the crown jewel in the eyes of many Minnesota Timberwolves fans. It’s easy to see why. This franchise hasn’t had a good, dynamic scoring guard since, well, it’s been a while. Russell is exactly that. He’s incredibly talented, and best of all, he seems like a likely candidate to be made available in trade talks sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Of course, the other aspect of D-Lo that appeals to many is his relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns. The two are great friends. They, along with Phoenix’s Devin Booker, have expressed a desire to play together at some point in their careers.
New superteam going to form? pic.twitter.com/ml5WWIkeht— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 17, 2019
If there’s anything I’ve learned recently as a fan of this team, it’s that there are two things Wolves fans love: worrying about Karl-Anthony Towns leaving, and D’Angelo Russell.
The first point is somewhat fair considering the trouble Minnesota has had retaining marquee players but is pretty silly considering Towns just started the first season of his brand new max contract.
The combination of talent, availability, and relationship with Towns have developed the point about Russell, but I think it’s gone a bit too far.
What is so appealing about D-Lo?
Russell’s pure talent is undeniable. He’s a fantastic shot-maker and ball-handler. He operates well with the ball in his hands but might be even better off-the-ball.
D-Lo hasn’t been in a situation that’s allowed him to spot-up or run off of screens very often, but when he has, he’s been extremely effective. About 11% of Russell’s possessions end off of a screen. On those possessions, he is good for 1.16 Points Per Possession with an EFG% of 59.1%. That places him right around the 83rd percentile in the NBA this year. On spot-ups, he sees similar success. Only 7.5% of his possessions end in spot-ups, but he converts them into 1.08PPP with an EFG% of 56.8%, placing him in the 67th percentile.
This offensive versatility would fit nicely in Minnesota alongside Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
What would Russell’s impact be on Minnesota?
In terms of individual offense, D’Angelo Russell would bring an element that the Wolves haven’t had in years. That’s a fact, and has been covered at great lengths previously. When you look at the broader picture, though, it can get a bit murkier.
D-Lo struggles to finish at the rim, and for that reason he rarely attacks the rim, instead preferring free-throw line pull-ups. It’s the reason he’s never attempted more than his current 4.5 free-throws per game. He’s good at those mid-range pull-ups, but that type of shot-profile places a ceiling on the efficiency of anyone outside of LeBron, KD, Kawhi, etc. He’s never made at least half of his two-point field goals, and this season has only attempted 7.8% of his field-goals attempts within three feet of the rim, compared to 19.4% of his FGA coming between 16 feet and the three-point line.
As good as his skill is, he struggles to actually make his own team’s offense substantially better while he is on the floor.
D'Angelo Russell's teams have never had a higher ORtg with him on than off pic.twitter.com/Jqr51mnQcZ— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) December 11, 2019
This isn’t meant to be an end-all-be-all, but it just shows that sometimes even incredibly skilled players can struggle to make a legitimate impact on winning. (Color coded numbers are team %ile)
This, folks, is where it gets ugly. I’m sure this is not a shock to many of you so I won’t beat a dead horse, but D’Angelo Russell is a bad defender. He isn’t very explosive as an athlete, and although he stands 6’5” tall with a 6’10 wingspan, his lack of athleticism and interest level on the less glamorous end holds him back.
He’s never posted a positive Defensive Box Plus-Minus, and it became clear in last year’s playoffs that he was a player you could target and attack.
In general, this is who Russell is. He’s an incredibly talented offensive player, albeit one who struggles to consistently make a large impact on winning due to a difficult shot-profile and subpar defense. D-Lo received a bid to the All-Star Game last season, and he earned it. He had a great season, and he is absolutely that type of talent skill-wise.
It’s also worth noting, however, that before injuries to both Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert last season, he was Brooklyn’s third guard and found himself on the bench to close games. Now, he picked up the slack with his running mates out and carried Brooklyn to the playoffs, but I feel that that at least shows a bit why there should be some skepticism about Russell.
I guess my main point on this is that while Russell would be an infusion of talent, the idea that he’s the cure to all of the Wolves’ problems is just not true.
He’d help some on offense, but Minnesota isn’t exactly dying because of their offense. They rank 17th in ORTG, which is right around league average, although unspectacular.
The other side of the ball is a much bigger issue. Minnesota still sits at 22nd in DRTG. That is bad but doesn’t quite show how bad this defense is right now. That number is in an absolute free fall.
Wolves are now 0-6 in the month of December with a defensive rating of 125.2, which is worst in the NBA by a significant margin over this stretch.— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) December 12, 2019
Small sample size and all, that’s flat-out embarrassing. For reference, last seasons Cleveland Cavaliers set the record for worst DRTG ever at 116.8.
D’Angelo Russell isn’t fixing that. When you consider what it would take to acquire him (more on that in a minute), he probably makes it much worse.
He’s a really, really good player, but this isn’t Kawhi Leonard or even Bradley Beal, guys. He’d help the team in some facets, for sure, but this isn’t the quick fix he’s seemingly being presented as amongst the Wolves fanbase.
How would a potential trade work?
Finding a trade that makes sense for both sides is nearly impossible, at least on the surface. The Warriors would almost certainly want Robert Covington as the centerpiece, and Jarrett Culver and draft compensation would likely need to be added to get a deal done.
Aside from that, with Russell being the recipient of a max-contract over the summer, there would likely need to be a third team involved to make the incoming/outgoing salaries work (unless I just stink at using the Trade Machine, which is very possible).
There are a few other things that I really think gets glossed over, here. One is that Golden State isn’t necessarily obligated to move D-Lo. Why wouldn’t they at least see what he looks like with their fully healthy roster?
The defense could be abysmal, but a Steph/Russell/Klay/Draymond/Looney type lineup would be pretty darn good. They’d struggle to defend at the guard spots for sure, but Klay, Draymond, and Looney are all very good defenders. I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe they would just move him for something less than a star without at least seeing what that looks like.
The last thing on the trade front is this: why do we assume that the Warriors are most interested in a player like Covington headlining their return? If GSW is going to deal Russell before next season, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to package Russell with the upcoming lottery pick (likely to be top 3-5)? That gives you a realistic shot at acquiring whoever the disgruntled, available star is at that time. That seems like the most likely trade avenue they pursue. They’re built to win as soon as they get healthy. A star-caliber contributor makes a lot more sense for them than adding a teenager in the draft and Robert Covington, in my opinion.
Lastly, there seems to be this idea that acquiring Russell means that KAT never leaves. The presence of D-Lo would probably help, but winning will ultimately be what keeps Towns around. We just saw Paul George demand a trade away from one of his best friends (Russell Westbrook) to get to a place he felt he had a better chance to win a championship. That’s the way this works.
There’s a lot to like about D’Angelo Russell. He’s a very, very good basketball player. Some of this may have come off incredibly negatively, but it felt like we were getting to a point where we were only highlighting (and sometimes exaggerating) his strengths while ignoring his very real deficiencies and limitations.
If Gerrsson Rosas does swing a trade for him, I’ll be fine with that. Russell fits the mold of the most difficult archetype to acquire. There’s a level of, “Just get him and fill in the gaps later,” with D-Lo, and I get that. He’d make a fine trio with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins on the offensive end, but that group would require two defensive studs on the floor with them at all times just to be passable.
I do not doubt that this new front office will, at some point, make a splash for a top-of-the-line ball-handler and shot-creator. Let’s just not stay so fixated on one guy, who Minnesota is ultimately unlikely to acquire, as the potential savior of this franchise.
*stats from nba.com and basketball-reference